The BBC can sometimes provide a mixed bag of TV offerings. The recent premiere of Sun Trap, a purported comedy starring Bradley Walsh and Kayvan Novak, is a prime example: the sitcom sees Novak’s undercover investigator parade a range of unfunny voices in an attempt to navigate his way around a sea of lazy stereotypes.
Fortunately, BBC iPlayer makes it easier to avoid the rubbish and catch up on the quality entertainment you expect from the broadcaster. Whether that’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or the impressive array of BBC Films that continue to line the walls of the streaming library, we review the top titles currently available:
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
This lavish production, based on Susanna Clarke’s novel, is an amusing and intriguing delight. The tale of two magicians in Georgian England boasts two excellent performances from Bertie Carvel (the arrogant, clumsy Strange) and Eddie Marsan (the reclusive, nervous Norrell) and a sharply condensed script from Peter Harness, which leans on period drama tropes to sell its parallel history of England. But the programme’s real power lies in its ability to build the extraordinary out of the ordinary. Director Toby Haynes presents a world that is wholly believable, grounding the story’s magic in practical, everyday objects; an approach that makes the incredible surprisingly credible. Read our full review.
Available until: 16th June (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC /Todd Antony
Episodes: Season 4
Sean and Beverly’s Hollywood career refuses to die as they are dragged back from London to make six more episodes of Pucks! The sight of everyone’s miserable faces – and Matt LeBlanc’s ever-amusing take on himself (especially after losing half of his money) – is more than enough to keep the return of this sitcom a pleasant treat. A depressingly believable take on the incompetency of the entertainment business, it makes for a perfect double-bill with W1A.
Available until: 10th June (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC / Hat Trick
An Hour to Save Your Life: Season 2
Earlier this year, Sky 1 brought us Critical, a medical drama that borrowed 24’s real-time premise to follow a team of surgeons trying to save emergency patients in the “Golden Hour” following their admission to hospital. Now, the BBC has responded with a second season of its own one-hour documentary about the same thing. Interviews with the doctors post-event provide welcome explanations of the procedures we’re watching – reminding us of the harsh reality that more than makes up for the lack of gory, fictionalised injuries. Sky’s show is sensational and gripping. These cases actually happened.
Available until: 2nd July (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC / Boundless
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
North Norfolk’s finest radio DJ ends up in a siege in this feature-length outing. A big-screen adventure that keeps things decidedly small, Alpha Papa impresses not because of its laugh count but because of its surprisingly mature take on Steve Coogan’s ageing non-celebrity, which emerges as something tender as well as silly.
Available until: 15th June
“Think torpedo with teeth.”
If the title of the BBC’s new nature series – simply “Shark” – doesn’t grab you by the teeth, the fact that it’s narrated by Paul McGann will have you falling for it hook, line and sink. Typically beautiful and full of fun names to repeat to your friends, this is Jawsome stuff.
Available until: 9th June (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC / Morné Hardenberg / Atlantic Edge Films
Mary Berry’s Absolute Favourites
Everyone’s favourite floral bomber jacket wearer Mary Berry returns to our TV screens once again with this new cookery show. The recipes are inspired by her childhood memories – including one interlude showing how to make ice cream – but it’s her no-nonsense presenting that makes her so easy to watch. The odd candid shot of her attempting to lick the spoon between takes only cements her status as a national treasure.
Available until: 15th June (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC / Shine TV
Women Who Spit
“Your shabby, slipped-stitch mistakes make you miraculous,” spits Vanessa Kisuule in a short poem urging women to stop shrinking back and to take up space. It’s one of countless brilliant lines you’ll hear during this series of short films, which see female poets tackle topics facing young people today.
Cecilia Knapp’s explanation of why she writes is inspiring, Deanna Rodger’s look at those forced off the street is provocative, while Jemima Foxtrot’s double-performed examination of confidence and doubt is an entertaining and powerful reminder of the importance of self over surface. Each are excellent performers, leaving your tongue tripping back over syllables to savour their taste, but keep Megan Beech’s passionate cry for more women on our TV screens until last: after the previous four fantastic compositions, you’ll be hard pushed not to agree.
Important and urgent, this collection shows just how valuable BBC iPlayer can be as a platform to voices that should be heard more often.
Available until: May 2016
Photo: BBC/Thomas Caron Delion
Murder in Successville
BBC Three’s improvised murder mystery comedy sees DI Sleet joined by a variety of celebrity guest stars to solve a crime. In Episode 1, it’s Made in Chelsea’s Jamie Laing, who has to work out who shot restauranteur Bruno Tonioli. He finds himself surrounded by other celebrities – Alan carr, Taylor Swift – but these are played by impressionists. And so the chaos begins, throwing the unsuspecting sidekick into scenarios that increasingly ridiculous.
The jokes are often on the disappointingly crude side, but as much fun as it is to see Tom Davis growl his way through over-the-top cliches, the real enjoyment lies in seeing Laing fail to keep a straight face. Is corpsing a mark of the hit-and-miss “script” failing or the production working? Either way, it’s absurdly high concept and unabashed silliness make this original idea exactly the kind of thing that BBC Three will hopefully continue to produce as it moves towards its online-only future. Call it Murder in Semi-Successville.
Available until: 25th June (Episode 1)
Photo: BBC/Tiger Aspect/Ollie Upton
There are two requirements to be a spy: 1. You have to look good in a coat with the collar turned up. 2. When something dangerous happens involving a new recruit or innocent bystander, you have to turn to them and say: “Welcome to MI5.”
Tom Hughes as Joe Lambe nails both in the opening episode of this period thriller.
Set in 1972, The Game is full of Cold War fun, from nasty Russians and executed former lovers to people hiding in cupboards. Brian Cox brings gruff edge to the secret service’s “Daddy”, but it’s Lambe who proves the most fascinating, as Toby Whithouse’s script jumps back and forth to question whether he’s all he appears to be. The low-key on-foot chases are shot with the expected style by Niall MacCormick. It’s all by-the-numbers stuff – and leaves you longing for The Hour – but Hughes’ enigmatic face keeps you glued to the screen.
Available until: 13th June (Episode 3)
Photo: BBC/Des Willie
“That’s all good, then,” says Ian Fletcher, Head of Values at the BBC after another unproductive group discussion. For anyone who watched mockumentary Twenty Twelve – or saw Season 1 of this Beeb-themed follow-up – Hugh Bonneville’s defeated catchphrase will fall on familiar ears. What it actually means: absolutely nothing’s good at all.
Fletcher rushes about New Broadcasting House at the start of Season 2, as the team prepare for a visit from Prince Charles and try to deal with a Jeremy Clarkson scandal, but it’s not the topical plots that make W1A so funny to watch: it’s the constant barrage of double-speak. “Yep, OK,” they all say over each other, never letting anyone actually make progress. The words may change – “Cool,” says clueless intern Will (the hilarious, scarf-wearing Hugh Skinner) – but the message is the same. Every time anyone speaks, they say nothing. Every time a meeting happens, it achieves nothing. And the more people speak – and the longer the meetings run – the less anything is actually said or done. It’s like watching a sitcom by Pinter or Beckett.
The cast deliver this intelligently stupid anti-language with wonderfully deadpan performances. Queen of it all is Jessica Hynes as PR guru Siobhan Sharpe, who agrees with every statement that comes out of anyone’s mouth. “Don’t think, just say things!” she enthuses, during one brainstorming session to help re-brand the BBC’s tennis coverage (the word “WINbledon” comes up). As things descend into talk of monkeys and butter, and events climax in an inspired dash through the corridors between New and Old Broadcasting House, W1A announces its return with a superbly conceived piece of verbal and physical farce. That’s all good, then.
Available until: 10th June (Episode 3)
Photo: BBC/Jack Barnes
Peter Kay fans will be pleased with the comedian’s debut show on the BBC, which sees his well-meaning supermarket employee drive to work every day with a colleague. The humour between the odd couple is nothing new, but the affection between the pair is just about endearing enough. Despite its banal, middle-of-the-road familiarity, there’s an innovative web series hidden in here somewhere. Read our full review
Available until: 7th June (Episode 3) / 14th June (Episode 4)
Frankie Boyle’s Election Autopsy
“Conservative voters you have ruined this country… with your dreams of swimming with dolphins, who at best will only feel indifferent towards you.” Frankie Boyle takes to BBC iPlayer once again after his Scottish Referendum special to dissect the result’s of this year’s general election. The online-only approach is a great fit for Frankie, who launches into a scathing tirade about Tories and Tory voters with the enjoyable air of someone deemed too hot for TV. Away from the edited constraints of something like Mock the Week, his wit really comes to the fore, not to mention his braying laugh, which only enforces the feeling that he’s really enjoying himself. The fact that his guest comedians – Sara Pascoe and Katherine Ryan – are all women (apart from two young boys who play guess-the-politician and poet Akala) only makes this 45 minutes even more impressive. Here’s hoping the Beeb bring out Boyle for all major events.
Available until: 16th June
Photo: BBC / Endemol Shine UK / Brian Ritchie
Private View – Jo Brand on Grayson Perry
The fifth entry in BBC iPlayer’s always interesting Private View series continues to open doors on exhibitions that might otherwise be out of reach for viewers. Here, Jo Brand gets exclusive access to the latest exhibition of Grayson Perry’s work at Turner Contemporary in Margate. Jo takes us on a personal tour around the artist’s early pots, prints, tapestries and sculptures – sharing her admiration for his ability to turn outrageous social observation into beautiful works of art.
Available until: 23rd June
Rev: Season 3
The coffers of St. Saviour’s are empty. The church seniors are looking to close the building. Adam and his wife (Olivia Colman) are losing their patience with each other. Sounds bleak? That’s because Season 3 of Rev is. And that’s a good thing. Rev’s strength has always been in its ability to take the serious with the silly: more sit than com, it’s drama first, entertainment second. The supporting cast (from Miles Jupp to Steve Evetts) occasionally slip into stereotypes but Holland and Colman always feel genuine – and it’s their marriage and Adam’s faith that fuel this run of increasingly dark episodes, which climax with a beautifully conceived Easter tale, complete with an inspired Liam Neeson cameo. If you missed their first run on TV, catch these repeats while you can.
Available until: 30th July
Carey Mulligan stole a nation’s heart with her superb performance in this coming-of-age drama. which sees young Oxbridge candidate Jenny whisked away into a world of glamorous possibilities by the Peter Sarsgaard’s older man, David. Watch out for a scene-stealing turn by Rosamund Pike.
Available until: 3rd July
Ryan Rodney Reynolds delivers one of his career’s best turns in this thriller about a truck driver in Iraq who wakes up to find himself buried alive. With nothing but a lighter and a mobile phone, his attempt to escape is cleverly written to last the 95 minutes, while director Rodrigo Cortes does innovative things with his tiny space. Grippingly claustrophobic stuff.
Available until: 7th June
My Week with Marilyn
Michelle Williams transforms herself completely for this tale of Marilyn Monroe and her affairs with a young assistant during the production of The Prince of the Showgirl. Kenneth Branagh’s Laurence Olivier is equally delightful, but amid the joyful hamminess sits Eddie Redmayne’s naive suitor, whose devotion makes this a charming watch.
Available until: 6th July
This fantastically observed satire of Hollywood blockbusting follows a group of actors trying to make the ultimate war movie. Ben Stiller and Jack Black are wonderful as a clueless action man and drug addict, but it’s Robert Downey Jr.’s obsessively method performer who brings the biggest laughs. “I’m a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude!” he yells with an incredibly straight face. The over-the-top finale loses some of the hilarity, but only because it so closely resembles the product its parodying: sometimes, the best satire is scarily believable.
Available until: 13th June
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel may not always be the psychological mystery that either set out to be, but Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller’s performances as troubled teen Kevin and his mother are horribly convincing.
Available until: 25th June
Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, adapted by Ronald Harwood from his own play, is exactly what you’d expect from the congenial actor; a warm-hearted ode to the act of performance.
Maggie Smith on vocals? Another OAP on piano? This is The Best Exotic Marigold 2: The Musical. Or, Classic FM: The Movie. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing; the talented old farts stop their clarinets getting too full of hot air. Despite cliches and syrupy key changes, Hoffman’s relaxed helming keeps the tempo up – one opening montage is beautifully. The result hits all the right notes – and most of them in the right order.
Available until: 29th June
As each new version of Great Expectations arrives, the title Lowered Expectations seems more appropriate. Ever since David Lean’s definitive film, the playing field has felt crowded. Even the BBC produced a third (very admirable) adaptation last year. Do we really need another? To its credit, Mike Newell’s Great Expectations convinces us we do.
The initial scenes of Pip’s home life never quite come to life, but once we are whisked away to London, via Miss Havisham’s ruined mansion and her cold-hearted ward, Estella, Newell’s version begins to find surer footing. David Nicholls’ script lets Pip and Estella’s anti-romance take centre stage: despite a deliberately understated turn from Helena Bonham Carter, Jeremy Irvine and Holliday Grainger steal the show; Irvine’s Pip is determined and passionate, while Grainger’s stunning, bullied Estella evokes genuine sympathy.
Available until: 22nd June
The History Boys
Alan Bennett’s superb stage play is turned into an equally excellent film, with the inimitable Richard Griffiths as Hector, a history teacher trying to coach a class of 1980s Yorkshire lads into successful Oxbridge candidates. If the clash of backgrounds recalls Dead Poets Society, it is no bad thing, as Bennett takes the sentiment of carpe diem out of the present and into a uniquely British and altogether moving future: sometimes all you can do is pass it on.
Available until: 21st June
Leave to Remain
Anything with Toby Jones in is always worth watching – something that indie drama proves beyond doubt. He plays a well-intentioned officer who helps refugees obtain citizenship in the UK, just as an Afghan teenager finds his case interrupted by the arrival of a boy from back home. The soundtrack by alt-J is a bonus.
Available until: 30th July
Made in Dagenham
The fantastic Sally Hawkins is wonderful in this comedy drama charting the fight of female factory workers at the Ford Dagenham plant for equal pay in 1968. Its period-accurate language landed it a 15 certificate from the BBFC, but there is much to inspire young girls in this stirring gem.
Available until: 15th June
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt bring a surprising amount of charm to this whimsical, flimsy tale of an advisor at the Department of Fisheries, who is hired by the assistant to a wealthy Yemeni client to create a salmon fishing paradise in his home country – something that he deems nigh impossible.
Available until: 8th June
In the Loop
Armando Iannucci’s scathing political satire leaps from the small screen to the big with the hysterical tale of how a bumbling British MP (a never better Tom Hollander) accidentally becomes involved in launching international war with the USA. Peter Capaldi’s dark lord of profanity Malcolm Tucker is reason alone to tune in, but the supporting cast (including the late James Gandolfini) match him every sweary step of the way.
Available until: 15th June
Two young employees of an insurance company discover that their company is heading towards disaster in this tense financial drama. The cast boasts everyone from Kevin Spacey and Demi Moore to Paul Bettany and Stanley Tucci, but the film’s seemingly perpetual pertinence is what make it so important to watch.
Available until: 12th June
Adam Curtis’ bizarre, surreal, brilliant provocative documentary deconstructs the media’s presentation of politics and history with a dizzying complexity and a dark sense of humour. At over two hours, it’s a daunting watch, but an important one – not least because it showcases the potential for BBC iPlayer as a platform for bold, experimental work. (Read our full review)
Available until: 2016